COLORADO SPRINGS — Government officials say satellite operators need to take greater responsibility for safe operations of their spacecraft in increasingly congested orbits.

Speaking during a session of the 38th Space Symposium here April 20, Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, said companies and organizations will need to be better able to responsibly operate their satellites given the growing number of satellites from various constellations.

“Not all operators are operating at the same level of competence,” he said, based in part on their level of experience. “We have to have a serious dialogue about operator responsibility.”

DalBello drew parallels to air traffic management, where pilots require different licenses for flying a small private plane versus a commercial jetliner. “As we look forward to the future, I think we need to ask serious questions about what new responsibilities will come both for the government but also for the operators themselves, in terms of certification, in terms of capability, in terms of the commitment they make to safety and the overarching goal of space sustainability.”

His office is leading efforts to establish a civil space traffic management (STM) capability, taking over from the Defense Department. However, that will primarily involve collecting and analyzing space situational awareness data and providing warnings of potential conjunctions to satellite operators, but not compelling those operators to maneuver to avoid collisions.

One of the largest government satellite operators said it supports responsible space operations. “We intend to be very much active in being responsible operators in space,” said Travis Langster, principal director for space and missile defense policy at the Defense Department, on the same panel.

The DoD currently provides that civil space traffic management capability but also lacks regulatory authority. “We’re not a regulator, like the Department of Commerce,” he said.

One part of that effort is greater insight into how companies are maneuvering their satellites. “We have to move to a world where there’s more transparency in what commercial operators are doing,” DalBello said. “They need to share their location information. They need to share their maneuver information. We should be able to reshare that information.”

The Commerce and Defense Departments are collaborating on the transition of civil STM capabilities to Commerce. DalBello said his office has the goal of establishing an initial capability in the third quarter of 2024.

There will be, he added, some overlap with what the DoD current provides, like its Space Track service. “That’s going to be a gradual transition. Our goal and our commitment to the community is that we’re not going to just turn things off that you’re relying on,” he said. “There will probably be a period where we’re operating two systems in parallel. DoD will want to get comfortable with our level of competence in doing this, and then slowly they’ll start turning things off.”

Both said they are working well together on this transition. “Our teams meet weekly,” Langster said. “We’re looking forward to taking the next steps. It is fairly technical right now, but I think we’re on a very good path forward.”

Langster reiterated past comments by Defense Department officials about their desire to hand over civil STM to Commerce. “Inherently, the DoD is a military organization, and that means inherently there are constraints” like security and procedures, he said.

The Office of Space Commerce, meanwhile, is working to refine its civil STM plans, such as what constitutes “basic” services it will offer for free to all satellite operators and what more advanced services will be left to companies to offer.

The office held a webinar April 12 where it reviewed the responses it received to a recent request for information on the topic. That revealed that while there was widespread agreement among both spacecraft operators and commercial providers of space situational awareness (SSA) services of what the office considered to be basic services, there was less agreement among what should be considered advanced.

“The concern is that there is a commercial SSA industry that exists,” DalBello said. “The government wants to provide a free safety service but, on the other hand, the government doesn’t want to put people out of business.”

He suggested that, eventually, the government could step back from space traffic management and hand more of this to the commercial sector. “STM will just be one of the costs of flying a commercial satellite fleet. There will be a series of qualified operators and you maybe just pick one for your particular system, and the government’s role could actually get quite small as we look out a decade or maybe two decades.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...